Employers' Toughest Interview Questions: Why They're Asked, How To Answer

There are few situations more stressful than being stumped by a question during a job interview. But with stiff competition in the labor market, employers -- especially large ones -- are asking all kinds of seemingly odd, irrelevant questions.

Which kinds of questions are being asked? How about:

  • "What is the profit potential of offering wireless Internet service on planes?" asked of a consultant candidate interviewed at Oliver Wyman Group; or
  • "How many hotels are there in the U.S.?" put to a product manager candidate at Google Inc.


Those are just two recent examples compiled from more than 80,000 responses by Glassdoor, which produces an annual list of 25 of the most difficult companies to interview with (see the infographic below).

The career site says that consulting firms, such as Oliver Wyman and McKinsey & Co., among others, typically have the most difficult job-interview process because of the nature of the work. Consulting firms and their employees are hired to help solve weighty problems that range from international economics to local school districts, says Glassdoor spokesman Scott Dobroski.

Though questions such as those above may seem irrelevant to a job seeker's skills, career-expert J.T. O'Donnell says companies have two reasons for asking them. First, the hiring manager wants to know if candidates possess the kind of knowledge expected for the position -- and that may not always be apparent in the initial vetting process.

More:Top 10 Soft Skills For Job Hunters

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she says, such questions are "really behavioral questions in disguise."

In their more pedestrian form, behavioral questions take the guise of: "Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure," or "How do you handle a challenge?" More creative ones include, "What kind of fruit (or car) would you be if you could be one."

But the types of behavioral questions larger employers are asking these days are what O'Donnell calls "the sneaky ones." In other words, "They know you're not going to know the answer, so they're trying to see what happens when you're stumped [and] under pressure," she says.

More:The Best And Worst States For Job Seekers

Further, she says, interviewers want to be able to gauge an applicant's thought process. Employers don't expect you to know the answer, but they are expecting you to figure out how to find the information.

O'Donnell says it's best to respond by being honest. "It's OK to say, 'I don't know the answer, but I can break down for you how I can get it."

That's what employers are looking for; workers who have the resourcefulness to know how to take the knowledge that they've gained and apply it to future situations.

So, she says, "Don't be afraid to tell them how you'd get it done."

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